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Monday, July 14, 2008

Archaeology: Ancient bones could help combat TB

Archaeologists and medical researchers are joining forces to examine human remains from Jericho in a real-life version of 'Bonekickers'

Robin McKie in London and Toni O'Loughlin in Jerusalem

Ancient bones from the city of Jericho are to be used by British scientists to develop treatments for tuberculosis. The project is part of a new scientific discipline in which archaeologists and medical researchers are cooperating to gain insights into modern ailments.

Other diseases being tackled this way include syphilis, malaria, arthritis and influenza. Ancient history holds vital clues in seeking out treatments for modern diseases, according to these real-life counterparts of TV's new archaeological detective series Bonekickers, starring Hugh Bonneville and Adrian Lester. The programme gives dramatic relevance to the study of archaeology, as UK scientists are doing with the study of ancient diseases.

This point is stressed by project leader Professor Mark Spigelman, of University College London. 'I don't think we've got new diseases today; we have got variations of old diseases,' he told The Observer.

The team, which also includes Israeli, Palestinian and German researchers, will be following up pioneering work by British archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon. In the Fifties she made a series of important digs at Jericho and found bones from thousands of humans, some dating back 8,000 years.

When these bones were examined, it was discovered many had lesions, indicating that the city's men and women had suffered from tuberculosis. The walls of Jericho may have come down, not with a trumpet blast, but with epidemic of coughing, it seems.

Now Spigelman and his team have begun studying DNA from these remains in order to identify genes that might have helped to make the people of Jericho susceptible or resistant to tuberculosis, and so help in the development of more effective treatments for the disease.

In addition, the team will study how the TB bacterium evolved over the millennia. 'As humans grew up, the bugs grew up - and we are looking for these changes,' said Spigelman.

Crucially, TB needs an urban environment to survive. 'TB is a disease of crowds because it spreads by people coughing,' added Spigelman. And given that Jericho was one of the world's oldest cities, its human remains are crucial to investigating the roots of TB thousands of years ago.

'Jericho is pivotal because it gives us a founder population from a very, very early site of urbanisation,' he added.

Today TB infects nine million people a year - 450,000 with a strain that is resistant to first-line drugs, according to the World Health Organisation. The need to gain new insights into the disease has therefore become urgent.

Not every disease is susceptible to such research, however. According to Dr Simon Mays at English Heritage's Ancient Monuments Laboratory, many illnesses leave no marks on the skeletons of their victims, making it impossible for scientists to pinpoint the bones of disease victims and to study them.

'For example, viral infections tend to be rapid in their impact and leave no trace,' he said. 'On the other hand, many bacterial infections do leave bone lesions, however - such as TB, leprosy and syphilis. Each of these has become of the focus of research, as a result.

'Historical clues are also useful. We can study the skeletons of bubonic plague victims because we know many were buried in special communal graves.'

In addition, scientists recently exhumed the bodies of victims of the 1918 flu epidemic because they had been buried in marked graves. Data from this research has been crucial in preparing medical defences against future epidemics, added Mays.

In addition, digs in Britain have provided evidence of arthritis spread through the population during the Middle Ages.

'Archaeological research has also shown that until relatively recently, children were weaned around the age of three,' said archaeologist David Miles, 'for the reason that late-weaned children were better protected against infections. Weaning children early, as we do today, is not necessarily a good thing, the lesson of history would suggest.'

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Will Our Future Brains Be Smaller?


Will our future brains be smaller? It has been thought for some years that mammals have two decision-making systems in their brains which operate at different speeds to cope with different situations. Do we still benefit from using both? (Credit: iStockphoto/Vasiliy Yakobchuk)

The speed at which we react to threatening situations can have life or death implications. In the more primitive past, it could have meant escaping a wild animal; today it might mean swerving to avoid a head-on car crash.

It has been thought for some years that mammals have two decision-making systems in their brains which operate at different speeds to cope with different situations. New research from the University of Bristol supports this theory and has shown that the evolutionary pressures arising from the older, faster, but less accurate, part of the brain may have shaped the more recent development of the slower-acting but more precise cortex, found in humans and higher animals.

Pete Trimmer, lead author on the study, explained: "If we compare the brain of a human with that of a reptile, we find they are very similar except that mammals have a large 'outer cortex' around the outside of the existing 'sub-cortical' brain, that is common to other vertebrates.

"The fact that lizards make decisions indicates that the sub-cortical brain in humans is also likely to be used in decision-making. However, fMRI scans now reveal that parts of the outer cortex (which developed more recently in our evolutionary past) are also used when making decisions."

Why does the brain need these two decision-making areas? What benefit does the new cortex bring? After all, extra brain means extra weight and energy required to carry it around. Furthermore, is the older sub-cortical system now largely redundant? If so, could we expect it to atrophy in future humans so our brains become smaller?

To address these questions, Trimmer built theoretical models representing the two systems in which the sub-cortical system was assumed to act very quickly but inaccurately, whereas the cortex allowed information to be gathered before making an informed decision, and was therefore slower.

The results of their modelling showed that when the threat level is high, such as the risk of being attacked by a dangerous animal, it is very useful to have the fast-acting, if inaccurate, system. But when dealing with situations which don't occur very often, or complex scenarios with many conflicting cues such as social situations, the cortical system is of more use than the sub-cortical system.

Trimmer commented: "As life became more complex, the benefit of gathering information before making a decision put an evolutionary pressure on the early brain. This may have led to the rapid development of the cortex in mammals. So if humans continue to live in a world of dangers such as wild animals or fast-moving cars, there will still be an evolutionary benefit to maintaining the sub-cortical system, and it is unlikely to atrophy in future humans."

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Secret chamber may solve Mexican pyramid mystery

By Tom Leonard in New York

Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan
AP
The Aztecs believed the city was divine and identified it with the place where the sun was created

With its soaring stone pyramids and geometric temples, Teotihuacan was once the biggest city in the Americas and possibly the world.

However, experts have never been able to say with certainty who built it and why it was suddenly abandoned.

An international team of experts believes the answer may lie under the Pyramid of the Sun, the centre point of the vast ruined city 25 miles outside Mexico City.

At the end of this month, they are to investigate a man-made tunnel and cave system underneath the pyramid – the third biggest in the world – to test theories that it was used for rituals including human sacrifice.

"We think it had a ritual purpose. Offerings were placed at the very end of the tunnel as part of the pyramid's construction process," said Alejandro Sarabia, Teotihuacan's director of archaeology.

He will lead a team of Mexican, American and Japanese experts into a 295 ft long, 8 ft high tunnel some 20 ft below the pyramid.

"We want to find out why the Teotihuacan people sealed it and when," Mr Sarabia said. "Excavating the cave could give us some clues about what happened at Teotihuacan, about the fate of the city."

At its zenith between 150 AD and 450 AD, Teotihuacan was home to up to 200,000 people of various ethnic origins and thought to have been larger than any European city at the time, including Rome.

But, sometime in the 7th or 8th century, it was set ablaze – possibly as the result of an insurrection – and abandoned.

The Aztecs believed the city was divine and identified it with the place where the sun was created. They also gave it its name, which roughly translates as ''The place where men became gods.''

The tunnel entrance was discovered by accident in 1971 while workmen were installing a sound and light show for the 738 ft wide pyramid.

After initial tests, it was dismissed as a natural cave and sealed two years later. Much of the information about it was lost when the archaeologist who found it died.

Mr Sarabia said: "If we can find out what happened, when, and perhaps how, it will give us a better idea about the history of the Pyramid of the Sun and of the city in general."

He said it was unlikely that the cave would have been used for everyday events and would probably have been accessible to only a select few.

"It may well have been used for sacrificial rites, dancing or other rituals," Mr Sarabia said.

The sacrifices are likely to have been human ones, he added.

Evidence of human sacrifice has been found all around the city, including the remains of children buried at each corner of the Pyramid of the Sun.

It is believed these burials were part of a ritual dedication of the building while other victims, probably captured enemy warriors, were killed to bring the city good luck.

Mr Sarabia said the excavation work would be "tricky" because there was virtually no light and the entrance to the tunnel was in poor condition.

For many years, archaeologists believed the city was built by the Toltecs but it is now accepted that their civilisation came centuries later.

Teothiuacan, which has World Heritage Site status, is still visited by thousands each year to celebrate the spring equinox.

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Phaistos Disc declared as fake by scholar

Greek authorities will not allow the disc to be examined outside its case

Greek authorities will not allow the disc to be examined outside its case

Some say that its 45 mysterious symbols are the words of a 4,000-year-old poem, or perhaps a sacred text. Others contest that they are a magical inscription, a piece of ancient music or the world's oldest example of punctuation.

But now an American scholar believes that the markings on the Phaistos Disc, one of archaeology's most famous unsolved mysteries, mean nothing at all — because the disc is a hoax.

Jerome Eisenberg, a specialist in faked ancient art, is claiming that the disc and its indecipherable text is not a relic dating from 1,700BC, but a forgery that has duped scholars since Luigi Pernier, an Italian archaeologist, “discovered” it in 1908 in the Minoan palace of Phaistos on Crete.

Pernier was desperate to impress his colleagues with a find of his own, according to Dr Eisenberg, and needed to unearth something that could outdo the discoveries made by Sir Arthur Evans, the renowned English archaeologist, and Federico Halbherr, a fellow Italian.

He believes that Pernier's solution was to create a “relic” with an untranslatable pictographic text. If it was a ruse, it worked. Evans was so excited that he published an analysis of Pernier's findings. For the past century innumerable attempts have been made to decipher the disc. Archaeologists have tried linking them to ancient civilisations, from Greek to Egyptian.

Dr Eisenberg, who has conducted appraisals for the US Treasury Department and the J. Paul Getty Museum, highlighted the forger's error in creating a terracotta “pancake” with a cleanly cut edge. Nor, he added, should it have been fired so perfectly. “Minoan clay tablets were not fired purposefully, only accidentally,” he said. “Pernier may not have realised this.”

Each side of the disc bears a bar composed of four or five dots which one scholar described as “the oldest example of the use of natural punctuation”.

Dr Eisenberg believes that it was added to lead scholars astray — “another oddity to puzzle them, and a common trick among forgers”. The Greek authorities have refused to give Dr Eisenberg permission to examine the disc outside its display case, arguing that it is too delicate to be moved.

His misgivings could be laid to rest by a thermoluminescence test — a standard scientific dating test — but the authorities had refused, he said. In Rome, this test cast doubt recently on the provenance of another iconic archeological object.

Experts are now contending that the Capitoline Wolf, the famous bronze sculpture of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, founders of the city of Rome, dates from the Middle Ages, and not Etruscan times, as long has been held.

The Capitoline Museum's website says that the statue, known as Lupa, or she-wolf, is from the 5th century BC and was donated to the museum in 1471 by Pope Sixtus IV.

However, in a front-page article this week in the Rome daily a Repubblica, Adriano La Regina, who for decades headed the national archaeological office for Rome, suggested that the museum was reluctant to release test results indicating that the bronze was medieval.

“The new information about the epoch of the Capitoline bronze has been held back for about a year now,” La Regina wrote. He added that the tests had produced a “very precise indication in the 13th century”.

The 30in (75cm) bronze is the centrepiece of a museum room named after it, and postcards and T-shirts with its image are popular Rome souvenirs.

Claudio Parisi Presicce, the museum's director, insisted that his institution was not trying to hide data that could subtract centuries from the she-wolf's antiquity, saying that the data “aren't definitive yet”.

Dr Eisenberg publishes his findings in the July-August edition of Minerva, the archaeology journal ahead of its conference at the Society of Antiquaries in London this autumn.

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Schwarzenegger Confirms Link Between Global Warming And Wildfires, Hits Bush For Not Believing The Science»

On Friday, the Bush administration “rejected its own experts’ conclusion that global warming poses a threat to the public welfare, launching a comment period that will delay action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at least until the next president takes office.” As the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson notes, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson “attack[ed] the clear and present threat of global warming” and dismissed it as a “‘complex’ issue that hinges on ‘interpretation of statutory terms.’”

The decision was quickly denounced by environmental experts, EPA staffers, and even a member of President Bush’s own party — California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. In an interview this morning with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Schwarzenegger laments that the Bush administration “did not believe in global warming.” He adds that even if officials had done something on Friday, he would have thought it “bogus anyway…because you don’t change global warming and you don’t really have an effect by doing something six months before you leave office“:

[I]t just really means basically this administration did not believe in global warming, or they did not believe that they should do anything about it since China is not doing anything about it and since India is not willing to do the same thing, so why should we do the same thing.

But that’s not how we put a man on the moon. We did not say let everyone else do the same thing, then we will do it. We said we want to be the pioneers, we want to be out there in front. … I think we have a good opportunity to do the same thing, also, with fighting global warming.

As the Wonk Room’s Brad Johnson has explained, Schwarzenegger also confirmed that he believes the strong wildfires in California are partially a result of global warming. Watch it:

Schwarzenegger has repeatedly tried to call the Bush administration on its abysmal global warming record, exposing weak measures officials try to tout as groundbreaking. In April, Bush called for a “national goal” to halt the growth of U.S. carbon emissions by 2025. But as Schwarzenegger told PBS, “For him to say we should start really reducing greenhouse gases by the year 2025, by that time we’ll have no more glacier left.”

Transcript:

STEPHANOPOULOS: How much of that is due, do you think, to global warming, to climate change?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, it’s very hard to say. I mean, one thing we know for sure, and that is we have had a drought for two years in a row now. We have a lack of water here in California, which is very important, why we need to redo our infrastructure and rebuild our water system again in California.

And I think that we just have to be aware of those changes. I’m sure, partially, that it has something to do with global warming, also, because we have just now broken a record.

I think that in modern history in California, we have never had this kind of size of fire and up and down, 725,000 acres of land has burned so far. This is the most ever.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And yet we read front page of the Washington Post this morning, President Bush’s EPA is going to take no more actions this year during his presidency to stop global warming emissions.

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, to be honest with you, if they would have done something this year, I would have thought it was bogus anyway.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Why?

SCHWARZENEGGER: Well, because you don’t change global warming and you don’t really have an effect by doing something six months before you leave office. I mean, that is…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Doesn’t every bit help?

SCHWARZENEGGER: No, it doesn’t sound to me believable at all. The sincerity is not there.

I think that the way they have done it is much better, because it just really means basically this administration did not believe in global warming, or they did not believe that they should do anything about it since China is not doing anything about it and since India is not willing to do the same thing, so why should we do the same thing.

But that’s not how we put a man on the moon. We did not say let everyone else do the same thing, then we will do it. We said we want to be the pioneers, we want to be out there in front.

And we are out there in front when it comes to stem cell research. We’re out there in front when it comes to high technology and biotechnology, with our university systems.

I think we have a good opportunity to do the same thing, also, with fighting global warming.

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When Human Rights Extend to Nonhumans


David Silverman/Getty Images

ALMOST HUMAN A chimp at an Israeli wildlife park in April. Spanish lawmakers recently voted to grant apes some rights.

If you caught your son burning ants with a magnifying glass, would it bother you less than if you found him torturing a mouse with a soldering iron? How about a snake? How about his sister?

Does Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the Guantánamo detainee who claims he personally beheaded the reporter Daniel Pearl — deserve the rights he denied Mr. Pearl? Which ones? A painless execution? Exemption from capital punishment? Decent prison conditions? Habeas corpus?

Such apparently unrelated questions arise in the aftermath of the vote of the environment committee of the Spanish Parliament last month to grant limited rights to our closest biological relatives, the great apes — chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans.

The committee would bind Spain to the principles of the Great Ape Project, which points to apes’ human qualities, including the ability to feel fear and happiness, create tools, use languages, remember the past and plan the future. The project’s directors, Peter Singer, the Princeton ethicist, and Paola Cavalieri, an Italian philosopher, regard apes as part of a “community of equals” with humans.

If the bill passes — the news agency Reuters predicts it will — it would become illegal in Spain to kill apes except in self-defense. Torture, including in medical experiments, and arbitrary imprisonment, including for circuses or films, would be forbidden.

The 300 apes in Spanish zoos would not be freed, but better conditions would be mandated.

What’s intriguing about the committee’s action is that it juxtaposes two sliding scales that are normally not allowed to slide against each other: how much kinship humans feel for which animals, and just which “human rights” each human deserves.

We like to think of these as absolutes: that there are distinct lines between humans and animals, and that certain “human” rights are unalienable. But we’re kidding ourselves.

In an interview, Mr. Singer described just such calculations behind the Great Ape Project: he left out lesser apes like gibbons because scientific evidence of human qualities is weaker, and he demanded only rights that he felt all humans were usually offered, such as freedom from torture — rather than, say, rights to education or medical care.

Depending on how it is counted, the DNA of chimpanzees is 95 percent to 98.7 percent the same as that of humans.

Nonetheless, the law treats all animals as lower orders. Human Rights Watch has no position on apes in Spain and has never had an internal debate about who is human, said Joseph Saunders, deputy program director.

“There’s no blurry middle,” he said, “and human rights are so woefully protected that we’re going to keep our focus there.”

Meanwhile, even in democracies, the law accords diminished rights to many humans: children, prisoners, the insane, the senile. Teenagers may not vote, philosophers who slip into dementia may be lashed to their beds, courts can order surgery or force-feeding.

Spain does not envision endowing apes with all rights: to drive, to bear arms and so on. Rather, their status would be akin to that of children.

Ingrid Newkirk, a founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, considers Spain’s vote “a great start at breaking down the species barriers, under which humans are regarded as godlike and the rest of the animal kingdom, whether chimpanzees or clams, are treated like dirt.”

Other commentators are aghast. Scientists, for example, would like to keep using chimpanzees to study the AIDS virus, which is believed to have come from apes.

Mr. Singer responded by noting that humans are a better study model, and yet scientists don’t deliberately infect them with AIDS.

“They’d need to justify not doing that,” he said. “Why apes?”

Spain’s Catholic bishops attacked the vote as undermining a divine will that placed humans above animals. One said such thinking led to abortion, euthanasia and ethnic cleansing.

But given that even some humans are denied human rights, what is the most basic right? To not be killed for food, perhaps?

Ten years ago, I stood in a clearing in the Cameroonian jungle, asking a hunter to hold up for my camera half the baby gorilla he had split and butterflied for smoking.

My distress — partly faked, since I was also feeling triumphant, having come this far hoping to find exactly such a scene — struck him as funny. “A gorilla is still meat,” said my guide, a former gorilla hunter himself. “It has no soul.”

So he agrees with Spain’s bishops. But it was an interesting observation for a West African to make. He looked much like the guy on the famous engraving adopted as a coat of arms by British abolitionists: a slave in shackles, kneeling to either beg or pray. Below it the motto: Am I Not a Man, and a Brother?

Whether or not Africans had souls — whether they were human in God’s eyes, capable of salvation — underlay much of the colonial debate about slavery. They were granted human rights on a sliding scale: as slaves, they were property; in the United States Constitution a slave counted as only three-fifths of a person.

As Ms. Newkirk pointed out, “All these supremacist notions take a long time to erode.”

She compared the rights of animals to those of women: it only seems like a long time, she said, since they got the vote or were admitted to medical schools. Or, she might have added, to the seminary. Though no Catholic bishop would suggest that women lack souls, it will be quite a while before a female bishop denounces Spain’s Parliament.

But we’re drifting from that most basic right — to not be killed for food.

Back to the clearing. As someone who eats foie gras and veal (made from tortured animals) and has eaten whale (in Iceland), I don’t know why I suddenly turned squeamish when offered a nibble of primate. On reflection, I probably faked that too. When I was young, my family used to drive over Donner Pass each year to go camping, and my mother would regale us with the history of the Donner Party. Even as a child, I had no doubt that, in extremis, I would have tucked in.

On our drive back to Cameroon’s coast, my guide insisted that some of the local Fang people, well known for cannibalism in the 19th century, still dug up bodies to eat. I believed him partly because in South Africa, where I then lived, murder victims were often found missing the body parts needed in traditional medicine.

Cannibalism is repugnant to the laws of all countries. But that repugnance is not written in the extra tidbits of DNA that separate us from chimps. Quite the opposite: “pot polish” on human bones found in various archaeological sites suggests that some of our ancestors exited this world as stew. That too puts us in the “community of equals” with apes; female chimpanzees are known to eat rivals’ babies.

But when human law does intervene in this primate-eat-primate world, it is also on a sliding scale. Even animal cruelty laws have a bias toward big mammals like us. For example, in a slaughterhouse, chickens are sent alive and squawking into the throat-slitting machine and the scalding bath.

But under the federal Humane Slaughter Act, a cow must be knocked senseless as painlessly as possible before the first cut can be made.

Which raises an interesting moral dilemma for the righteous Spanish Parliament: What about bullfighting?

As in all great struggles separating man from beast: a lot of it’s in the capework. Olé!

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Geothermal Energy Will Help Power Anaheim, California

Geothermal Unit

After six years of research, Raser Technologies will deliver geothermal energy to the city of Anaheim, California. The geothermal generator, which is located in Beaver County, Utah, will produce 10 megawatts of energy, or enough to power 9,000 homes. It should be completed by October. Anaheim’s new energy source will put it on the fast track to reaching 20 percent of its total energy needs through renewable energy by 2012.

The Raser geothermal model is much more consumer-friendly than previous models, as it operates at the relatively low temperature of 165 F. And a lot is riding on its success. According to Merrill Lynch’s managing director of corporate finance Roy Piskadlo, “The success of this project will be important, because with this new low-temperature technology, the range of potential commercial sites is much wider.”

Not only is the low temperature of the Raser model revolutionary, but so its existence in the first place. The Beaver County project, which draws on 640 acres of land, is the first geothermal project to be built in Utah in approximately 20 years.

Most importantly, Raser believes that there will be a very low risk of water degradation in the project’s reservoir, thus ensuring the sustainability of the energy source. And more areas of the country should begin to see the fruits of Raser’s labor sometime in the near future—the company holds the rights to 225,000 acres of land in multiple states.

Hopefully, Raser’s project will help cities and town that can’t rely on wind or solar energy reach their sustainability goals sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit: Raser Technologies

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Living in a world without waste

By Roger Harrabin
Environment analyst, BBC News

Advertisement

Zero waste: The Japanese island where the rubbish collectors never come

The Mayor of Kamikatsu, a small community in the hills of eastern Japan, has urged politicians around the world to follow his lead and make their towns "Zero Waste".

He told BBC News that all communities could learn from Kamikatsu, where residents have to compost all their food waste and sort other rubbish into 34 different categories.

Residents say the scheme has prompted them to cut down on waste generally and food waste in particular.

If the policy spread, it would reduce the amount of food waste, and so take some of the pressure off high food prices.

Kamikatsu may be a backwater in the wooded hills and rice terraces of south-eastern Japan but it's become a world leader on waste policy.

There are no waste collections from households at all. People have to take full responsibility for everything they throw away.

It's a good idea to send things back to the earth so I support it
Hatsue Katayama

Kitchen waste has to be composted. Non-food waste is processed either in local shops which accept goods for recycling or in Kamikatsu's Zero Waste Centre. There, people have to sort their unwanted items into 34 different boxes for recycling.

Residents have to sort plastic bottles (used for fruit juice, for example) from PET (polyethylene teraphthalate) bottles (used for mineral water) because PET is more valuable when it is separated out.

There are specific boxes for pens, razors and the sort of Styrofoam trays on which meat is often purchased. These have to be washed and dried.

The scheme was adopted when councillors realised it was much cheaper than incineration - even if the incinerator was used to generate power.

Winning idea

Many locals are enthusiastic participants. Take Kikue Nii, who strips labels off bottles then washes and dries them before sending them to recycling.

She takes her other everyday waste to the local shop where she receives a lottery ticket in return for a bag of cans.

Recyling at a local shop
The community uses incentives to encourage recylcing

She has won a £5 food voucher four times. It's not a huge amount but it's better than nothing.

She is also a big fan of composting.

"I think I produce less waste because I have to compost it," she says.

"When I can't use the whole vegetable or meat, I try to cook it again with wine and so on. It makes a very good soup. Everyone should have a composter if they can."

Her neighbours Fumikazu Katayama and his wife Hatsue are ardent composters, too.

Hatsue says: "I have to do it every day; it's certainty a bit of work. But it's a good idea to send things back to the earth so I support it. I just do it naturally now; it's part of the routine."

The Katayamas take the rest of their waste to the Zero Waste Centre for sorting - carrying the waste bag between them.

Global question

Questions remain about the scheme. Some of the composters are boosted by electric power, which creates greenhouse gas emissions.

And it's possible that the savings in greenhouse gases from recycling are negated by the need for people to drive to the Zero Waste Centre.

Yoko Kyoi  converts a silk kimono belt into a bag
Old curtains or kimonos are expertly converted into bags

Natsuko Matsuoka, one of the originators of the centre, disagrees - she says people generally tie in the journey with a weekly shopping trip.

A poll showed that although the Zero Waste policy has many admirers, 40% of people weren't happy about all aspects of the scheme.

The Mayor Kasamatsu Kasuichi is undeterred: "We should consider what is right and what is wrong, and I believe it is wrong to send a truck to collect the waste and burn it.

"That is bad for the environment. So whether I get support or not, I believe I should persuade people to support my policy."

Now he invites other politicians around the world to follow suit.

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Researchers Find Ancient Evidence of 'Snowball Earth'

LSU scientist Huiming Bao, along with colleagues from UCLA and China, recently discovered some of the first atmospheric evidence in support of the “Snowball Earth” hypothesis. This theory suggests that Earth was entirely covered by ice during the Cryogenian period, which took place from about 790 to 630 million years ago. Their findings were reported in the May 22 issue of Nature.

Bao and his group used a new parameter called “sulfate oxygen-17 anomaly” to measure atmospheric records found in mineral sulphate deposits. “My group specializes in measuring these anomalies – very few other groups do,” said Bao. “This puts us in an extremely good position for uncovering previously unknown information.”

These oxygen-17 anomalies are usually not measured by scientists who study Earth rocks because they were originally believed to be exclusively extra-terrestrial in nature, coming only from specific types of asteroids. Over the years, Bao’s group has worked on many extremely dry deserts on Earth and shown that there are a large range of oxygen-17 anomalies among desert salts that record atmospheric reactions.

All of the previous documented anomalies are positive, meaning that there is an excess in oxygen-17 isotopes. This finding, however, reveals a large depletion in oxygen-17 content in some of the sulfate minerals. These are the first oxygen-17 depletions, or negative anomalies, found in Earth minerals. What is even more striking is the timing of the negative anomalies – there is a spike in the depletion right at the time when a global glaciation came to an abrupt end approximately 635 million years ago.

To account for the data, Bao and his colleagues proposed that this depletion spike was caused by an extremely high atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at that time, at least 40 times the modern level. That is what the “Snowball Earth” hypothesis predicted when the entire oceans were frozen over for millions of years. Bao and his colleagues will still have to rule out other scenarios before calling their evidence a “smoking gun” for the theory. “But we have found a new way to look into the details of very old glaciations events that other approaches couldn’t,” said Bao. “Using this new parameter, we should be able to read from the rock record the dynamics of the glaciations as well as the impact to biosphere, atmosphere and hydrosphere of our Earth system.”

In light of the increasing environmental stresses humans have placed on Earth, Bao said that there is a critical need to understand how a complex system like Earth’s can be expected to react.

“There is an old saying that the best way to know a person’s character is to put him or her under pressure and see how he reacts,” said Bao. “This is the same situation. The best way to learn more about our Earth system is to see how it responded to extreme conditions in the past.”

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